How To Handle Screw-Ups When You Are a Freelancer

When you’re a freelancer, it feels like there’s very little room for error. A series of mistakes that in an employed person would be a mere irritant become an excuse for not renewing a contract.

That’s probably why, when the inevitable mistake happens, I can sometimes go into a tailspin. I don’t literally beat my head against the desk, but I curse a lot, decide I’m going to lose all of my work and go bankrupt, and then reach out to a few friends.

In this case, the mistake was a scheduling mistake; a meeting that was slotted on to a Tuesday in my calendar was actually on Monday. But it was an important meeting. I felt a little like Marissa Mayer, who famously missed a dinner by oversleeping.

I didn’t oversleep, I just lost track of things in the midst of a triple deadline school day. If anyone has a miracle cure for scheduling snafus, I would love to hear it.

What about those inevitable mistakes? I don’t know the right way to handle them. I don’t lie or fudge, but I have learned over the years to be more honest: I don’t hide the fact that I am a single working mother juggling a lot.

Then I try to remind myself that the organization is getting something pretty great out of this deal: a benefits-free, highly experienced writer/editor. Then I look at my bank account and remind myself that I have a cash reserve and a lot of clients.

And then, I call my friends who inhabit the solo entrepreneur world with me, like Elaine, who said, “Remind yourself of how much you get done and how great you are at your work before you beat yourself up too much.”

Thanks, Elaine.

Growing Your Business

The Mindset That Will Help You Survive In Freelancing

Many of the folks I know who have tried freelancing and given up have gotten derailed by the same thing that leads to abandoned exercise goals: They’re not taking it one day at a time.

Perhaps they’re working on an assignment with a difficult client, experienced a schedule conflict between work and family, gotten sick unexpectedly or struggled to pay the bills when a check for a project didn’t show up on time. Whatever has gone wrong has become so overwhelming on that day that they just quit.

Sometimes, these were folks who really wanted to make freelancing work, so in case you are one of them, I’ll share a mindset that has helped me get through discouraging moments and press on these last seven years.

When I was training for the New York City Marathon years ago, I read a book on running where the author recommended thinking of yourself as a lifetime runner. If you viewed yourself that way and you had to miss a day’s workout, it would be easier to pick up the next day where you left off–instead of scrapping your whole training schedule.

Thinking the same way about freelancing can help. If yesterday was really hard and you got derailed, it doesn’t mean today will be the same. You’d be surprised at what you can accomplish by just showing up at your desk one more time and firing up your laptop.


The Lifestyle

Life Hacks For Freelancers

In my twenties, I discovered a lot of my favorite places through serendipity. I had the spare time to wander if I took a wrong turn in my car or missed my subway stop and ended up in a different neighborhood. That’s how I found a lot of out-of-the-way cafes, an almost undiscovered running path in Jersey City, and my favorite vintage store.

Like many working parents, I don’t have those air pockets in my schedule now. My husband and I are raising four children, ages 4 to 10, while juggling his independent business as a real estate appraiser and mine as a journalist and ghost writer. I keep inching my wakeup time a little earlier to buy myself more time, but I have not been able to move back from 4:45 am to 4:30 without being bleary all day, so I’m trying a new plan this fall. I’m turning to more time-saving tools. And I’m trying to say no more to things I don’t want to do, to free up more time for what matters.

Here are a few tools that I’m using. Most were referred to me by enthusiastic clients and users. If you’re up against a similar time crunch, I hope they’ll help you free more time.

Globafy. This is a free conference bridge that you can use for international calls. You can dial in from a local number in the U.S., while, if, say, the other participant in the call is in Italy, he or she can dial in from a local number there. It’s a good alternative to Skype unless your contact is in a hotel and has to pay the per-minute charges. On my phone, the sound quality is better than on Skype. This free screen-sharing service lets you tunnel into someone else’s computer or vice versa. Sometimes, it really saves time when you can both look at a document at the same time.

ScheduleOnce. This service, which starts at $5 a month, lets you send a link to clients to set up an appointment on your calendar, so you don’t have to email back and forth. They can see your available times, but not what you are doing in the unavailable time. If you set up a separate calendar, such as a family calendar in Google calendar, you can use the service to schedule time in that calendar, too, without accidentally treading into your work time. A client recommended it to me, and so far, it seems excellent. I had to migrate my Yahoo calendar to Google Calendar to use it. I’m using the premium version ($9 a month) and it seems adequate for my needs in a one-person business.

FreshBooks. This accounting software, which starts with a free version, is very easy for folks who aren’t financially-oriented to use. It’s simple to send invoices to client and keep on top of how timely the payments are. And you can easily run reports your accountant may want, such as a P&L statement.

AudioAcrobat. I’ve tried free apps to record phone calls, but I never found one that I could trust to be 100% reliable. So far, the best alternative I’ve discovered is AudioAcrobat, which will let you record phone calls from an iPhone or a conference line and in other scenario. You can also use it to create online content, like taping a podcast. There’s a free 30-day trial, then basic pricing starts at $19.95 a month. You can also use FreeConferenceCall to record calls, but that requires everyone to dial into your conference line unless you’re using another app. Sometimes, when I’m joining an existing project with a standing conference line, switching everyone to my line is not practical, so that’s where AudioAcrobat comes in.

Do you have any great tools you’re using? Let us know. Send us a Tweet at @200kFreelancer.







Growing Your Business, The Lifestyle, Uncategorized

A Visit With An Iraqi Refugee

I returned from my reporting trip to Jordan about a month ago. I’ve written five pieces so far from the trip — linked at the bottom of this article. One more soon to be published by CNBC and I hope others to come.

But one I haven’t written yet, which I can’t get off my mind, is the story of Fadia Bayati, a 42-year-old Iraqi refugee. I found her story a great contrast to most of the news about refugees that comes out of the region. Bayati has been in Jordan since 2004, when she fled with her husband and three boys in the turmoil after the American invasion of Iraq. Her husband, an HVAC contractor, had been disabled, she said.

They were Palestinians, who had been under the protection of Saddam, so after he fell they were vulnerable both to anti-Saddam forces and the Americans, she said. Mahdi’s army killed her brother. They took her nephew, who was 9.

“He had a Pepsi, and he threw it,” she said through a translator. “They took him for 12 hours.”

Western media, limited by time and money and reaching for easy narratives, tend to paint refugees or anyone caught up in the conflicts that litter the region as victims. There’s a fine line between well-meaning pity — as in this Buzzfeed story — and support for people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. They are victims — but they are more than victims, too.

I interviewed Bayati in the small city of Zarqa, where the Atlanta-based charity CARE runs a microlending group for women — a mixture of Jordanians and Syrian and Iraqi refugees. A few hundred thousand Syrian refugees, out of an estimated influx of nearly 1 million, have found their way to Zarqa, about an hour’s drive from Amman. We drove through the Jordanian desert, passing dozens of concrete houses and sheep wearing yellow-orange dust on their wool.

Bayati spoke with strength I found incredibly compelling. We met in a small house, with beautiful dark blue draperies in the living room, where there were three couches arranged. I sat on one of them, interviewing two refugee women, while the Jordanian members of the group met in the breakfast room off the modern kitchen. The idea of this microlending group is that members pool their money and make loans to finance each others’ businesses — baking, or handicrafts, mostly — or small projects. Last year, I wrote about a woman who was using a similar group to finance her son’s college education.

It was clear the women — many of them breadwinners — drew strength from each other. The spirit wasn’t that much different than a girls’ night here the United States — except that the stories were so much more brutal.

Bayati’s story turned quickly to a forced flight. Mahdi’s Army returned her nephew from his questioning, but it was clear to Bayati,, whose older son had already been damaged emotionally by what he’d seen, that her children were not going to grow up well, or maybe at all, in an environment of terror.

When the men told her family to get out, they packed a car with everything they owned, traveling across the country. The 8-hour trip took 16 because there were so many American checkpoints.

She was thankful that her children are fair-skinned and have blue eyes, because she thought that made the American servicemen more likely to pass them trough the checkpoints.

When the family arrived in Zarka, Bayati, had only her gold ring and earrings, which she sold to rent a house. At first, they got 75 Jordanian dinar a month from the UNHCR. — but that support stopped, and that’s when Batia stepped up. She had earned a communications degree at an Iraqi university, but after her marriage, never used it.

Seeking a way to support her family, she began volunteering for non-governmental organizations working in Jordan. Her ties to Iraqi community enabled her to identify which refugees needed help — a big aid to non-governmental organizations that sometimes have a hard time establishing trust. She also began helping with microfinance projects and an organization that educates refugees on sexual harrassment. And, she’s asked to learn English.

As I listened, I heard a familiar story of entrepreneurship. She had followed all the best career advice, volunteering to gain skills, and then making herself so useful that she was offered jobs. “You go search for opportunities,” she explained to the Syrian refugee across from us, who was newly arrived.

“We all love Fadia,” said Ethar Ghoul, who works for CARE. “She works for everyone.”

Bayati also makes tablecloths and knitted clothing for the winter, and last year helped organize a donation drive at Jordanian universities for refugees. It was titled: Donate, Even If It’s One Dollar.

“Where do you get the strength?” I asked.

“Life is a sea, and we have to be the captains,” she answered.

These days, the earnings for her family, all produced by her, are about 350 dinars a month. Her two younger sons, 18 and 15, are beginning to work: She has high hopes for them. Her husband doesn’t work, and her oldest son is mentally disabled and on medication. “He saw too much in the war,” she said.

Eventually, she may save enough to open a small factory to produce yogurt, a specialty of hers. I was scribbling in my notebook, taking down her determination and thinking: “I absolutely believe you can open a factory if you want to.”

By the time I left the interview, any impression of her as a refugee or a victim were long gone. She didn’t allow the word refugee to define her or her family: She’s the breadwinner and heart of her family, and a support to the entire community.

When we write or read about people caught up in conflicts, it is tempting to portray them as powerless. I’m glad that Buzzfeed is putting time and resources into covering international news — that’s a major, and difficult investment, and too few media outlets are doing it.

The story that partly inspired me to write this post includes the word “strength” in the headline. But the images and the details of the reporting reinforce just the opposite idea: that the refugees are weak.

That kind of lazy sentimentality, practiced too frequently by many media outlets and no doubt by some aid organizations, minimizes refugees, and is ultimately defeating to them and to people who want to help them.

Here are some of other stories from my trip

Syrian Refugee Businesses Emerge Out of the Crisis

On An Inspiring Bookseller Defying Censors

How To Finance Your Travel With Freelancing

The Lifestyle , , , , , ,

How To Finance a Freelance Passion Project

I’m in Amman, Jordan, this week, reporting on entrepreneurs in the Middle East. As I explained to people that I was going, many of my writer and photographer friends talked about how much they wanted to do similar things. Most of us have passion projects — ideas we’d love to see come to fruition but that just don’t fit in with our day jobs. And nobody wants to be one of those people at age 90 who’s saying: I always wanted to do that, but … You can see the first piece about my trip here: $14,000 and a Determined Entrepreneur Can Seed Change in the Middle East.

First, how it came about: I did a couple of stories about women entrepreneurs in the Middle East last year for CNBC. When I was reporting those stories, I interviewed a Jordanian woman who had helped a Syrian woman start a microbusiness, with the help of CARE. I was in the middle of a divorce at the time, figuring out how I was going to support my family, and their stories stuck with me. Their children worked with them at the bazaar where they were selling baked goods and accessories. I interviewed them at 7 a.m. our time and then on the way to school that morning I told my two girls, 10 and 6, about the women in the Middle East and what their lives were like. I’d been to the Middle East, before, to Iraq, and always wanted to go back. When this summer arrived and my girls went with their dad for a one-week vacation, I had the chance to go again, meet some of the women I’d talked to and do some more reporting on international finance and entrepreneurship, both hot topics in the business press.

Just take the leap: I wasn’t sure I felt secure enough financially until late this spring. There’s no way a trip like this can be anything other than a financial risk if you’re a self-employed freelance journalist, and you have to be prepared for that. But I had a reasonable confidence that I could sell enough stories to pay for a good deal of the trip, but I knew I needed to be able to say to editors as pitched: “I’m going” not “I’m going if you buy one of my stories.” This is my project, not theirs. My tickets to Jordan cost about $1,800. The rest of the trip is on as thin a dime as I could manage. For $50 a night in Amman, you can find a reasonable hotel. The water is not the hottest, but the WiFi works.

Pitch some, but don’t lock yourself in: I sold two stories before I went to two different editors at CNBC, and got indications of interest from two others at the BBC and the Atlantic. That was enough to get me in the door with various contacts and sources in Jordan That’s an important part of the equation, too — it helps to be able to talk to the right people if you can say, “I’m working on a story for CNBC,” versus, “I hope to be able to sell this to … .” But I don’t think it’s a good idea to go with your whole agenda locked into place. One of the purposes of the trip is to push your boundaries and see what you can find on the ground, which is hardly ever what you expect before you go. After I return, I’ll hone a few more ideas and try to get those done. Final note: The process of pitching, though painful, is always worthwhile. Even the editors I reached out to who didn’t buy stories will remember me.

Don’t stretch too far: There are other trips I’d like to take: reporting down the Amazon, for instance. But there’s nothing in my background to suggest that I have the tools or experience to do those stories. Entrepreneurs and international finance are a fit with the rest of what I do.

Do as much legwork as you can in advance: I went up to the UN for a conference, and made enough contacts there to get me in the door at the United Nations, heavily involved with the refugee camps in Jordan. I told pretty much everyone I knew that I was going, and a surprising number of people had connections that they were happy to share with me. The sister of my former neighbor, for instance, went to lunch with me and gave me the scoop on what to wear (perennial concern for women in Middle Eastern countries) and the etiquette for Westerners traveling during Ramadan. Manage your relationships with regular clients: I told my regular clients what I was doing, and found that most of them were supportive. I’ve kept working while I’ve been here, handling various crises, and responding to editors queries, but my regular work was tamped down to about 1/4 of the usual level. Side note: Plane rides are a great time to plow through 9,000 pounds of work at a time. I’ve interviewed Ralph Nader a few times lately. He remains determinedly off-line because, he says, “I want to get work done.” That’s easier for Ralph Nader than the rest of us, of course, because he has the cloak of age, fame and fortune, but the truth remains that email and social media interfere with productivity. I got a lot done on the 14-hour plane ride and expect to do a lot on the 18-hour trip home, too.

Bottom line: I’ll probably end up spending $3,000, but I’ll be able to write the whole thing off as a business expense, and I think I’ll be able to make at least 2/3rds back with the stories I write. More importantly, I’ve made a new round of contacts — always a smart investment — and given myself the confidence to know that I can pull a trip off again. The next time around, maybe next year, will be even easier.

The Lifestyle, Your Back Office , , , , , , , , , ,

Why Freelance? In A Word: Freedom

For some people, it happens in their 20s. For others, it’s after 30 years in the trenches.

They get tired of the whole idea of working for someone else.

There are a host of reasons I’ve heard from people I’ve interviewed: A boss from Planet Ego insists they follow arbitrary and insane rules because he’s on a power trip. They discover their company doesn’t promote people fairly. They come up with a great idea and no one will listen. A supervisor ruins every weekend by dropping projects on them at 6 pm on Fridays. Or they get laid off in a random corporate reorganization, after years of loyal and untiring service.

They get fed up and start a business.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending for many, according to recent research I mentioned in a recent post for Forbes.. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index found that 84% of owners would start their business all over again if given the chance for a do-over–despite contending with challenges, like keeping cash flowing.

The main thing they love: Independence.

Not everyone likes the flip side of being their own boss — being responsible, day in and day out, for generating their own income.

Running a business isn’t one and the same as being independently wealthy, where you are truly free to do what you want every day. In any business, your number one job is keeping clients happy. Sometimes, doing so means you have to cancel your plans for lunch with a friend or that run you’ve been looking forward to all week–or complete a deadline project while tending to a child who has the flu.

But like many people who have tasted the freedoms of running their own career and controlling their own advancement, I have no desire to go back to being an employee. I love being able to do the work I love, on my own terms–even if that sometimes comes with tough days.

I guess that means I’m part of the 84%.

Making the Break, Uncategorized , ,

Why Freelancers Need To Do A SWOT Analysis

When I interview very successful entrepreneurs, they often mention the SWOT analysis they did on their business. SWOT is short for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. They look at advantages they can shore up, gaps that make them vulnerable to losing customers, new opportunities to pursue and threats that could derail them. These factors help them set priorities and inform the strategy they use to run the business from day to day.

When I read Adam Lashinsky’s piece “Yes, we’re in a tech bubble. Here’s how I know it,” in Fortune (where I am a contributor), it struck me that many freelancers would benefit from doing a SWOT analysis, too. They are always vulnerable to losing important projects if something new goes wrong with the economy. I was a staff editor at a national publication during the dot-com bust and I remember how much our freelance budget dried up.

Many freelancers are unprepared for things to go wrong. Most of us simply try to do a great job on our projects and to find enough of them to pay the bills every week. Doing that is so time consuming that few of us sit down and come up with a Plan B in case the economy hits a big bump.

Hopefully, if there is  tech bubble, it won’t pop soon. But Adam’s article reminded me that every freelancer needs to step out of the daily grind and plan for the unexpected. Take 30 minutes this week and do a SWOT analysis on your business.

One common weakness in freelance businesses is being too dependent on one or two customers. If you could not pay the bills if your biggest clients went away, make some efforts to diversify in coming weeks. Spend some time networking. Put up a new advertisement of your services. Look for other types of projects you have not tried before. It takes some juggling to get your daily work done while also doing business development, but it is essential. Having new opportunities in your pipeline at all times means you will be a lot less vulnerable if something unexpected happens.

Growing Your Business, Uncategorized

Million-Dollar Freelancing And How to Get There

It is hard for many new freelancers to imagine earning a six-figure income. But that goal can be very attainable if you stick with it.

Here’s some information that may get you inspired:

More solopreneurs are earning $1 million and up, according to newly released Census figures, which I covered in  more detail in Forbes.  In fact, their numbers increased 10% from 2011 to 2012. The U.S. government found that the number of “nonemployer” firms with $1 million to $2.5 million in revenue rose from 26, 744 firms 29,494 companies that period.

Even more impressive: There are 2,286 super freelancers, who earn $2.5 million and up. Their numbers are ticking up, too.

Do they earn this amount from year to year consistently or break into these income ranges on a one-time basis because of a windfall from a big project, such as selling a book? My guess is that it varies from entrepreneur to entrepreneur.

The first step to getting there is building a sustainable business. In reporting another post for Forbes, I learned that research by Gallup shows that most microbusiness owners don’t rely on their income from their business as their main source until at least the second year. That old saw about keeping your day job, at least for a while, seems to hold some truth.

One key step toward generating all of your income independently, according to recent research, is getting a handle on cash flow in your business. If you’re like me, you may not enjoy creating Excel spreadsheets and learning cloud-based accounting software. But the Corporation for Enterprise Development has found that using such methods can help you keep your personal cash flow steady, too. When you run a microbusiness, your revenue is often closely linked to how much money you can pay yourself–so giving your business finances a bit of extra attention can make your quality of life much better.






Uncategorized, Your Back Office

Freelancing Is The Ultimate Job Security

I’m in New York City this week working on a new project, a great new web site, Crain’s Wealth, aimed at helping entrepreneurs manage money. It’s a pleasure to spend time with many journalists who work at Crain, one of the steady bastions of quality through the past decade.

At dinner, I talked to one of them, one whose husband had recently been laid off from a job in the insurance business. You’d think that health care would be a steady job if ever there was one, what with the aging population. But, of course, that’s not true. She explained that the Affordable Care Act had thrown the market into an upheaval. Fortunately, her husband has found another job.

But the conversation helped me remember that though it seems freelancing is the ultimate insecure job, it’s actually the ultimate secure one. As long as I keep a good mix of clients, and don’t rely too much on any one for my income, I can never be fired in a devastating way. The perfect job, the one that tempts me to leave freelancing to return to a newsroom or to be part of a company team, may come along. But until and if it does, independence equals stability.

Making the Break, The Lifestyle

What’s Your Number?

After I wrote an article about secrets of $200,000 freelancers, a reader on LinkedIn commented: “I’d just be happy with $50,000 a year.”

Many people feel just as intimidated by the prospect of trying to earn a full-time income when they first start out as freelancers. So how do you get to the point that you can go to sleep at night knowing you can earn the equivalent of the salary at your old job–and pay your bills on time?

The first step is knowing the exact income number you need to hit to live the way you want. Then figure out what you can realistically expect to earn this year. For some freelancers who are just starting out, it may be $30,000 or $50,000. For others with a deeper network of professional connections who can help them get work, it may be $200,000. I’d suggest aiming for 50% to 75% of your income from your last job in your first two years. Set your sights high, but not too far beyond your reach. There’s a pretty steep learning curve in the beginning. Matching your former salary is likely to happen in year three or four, based on what I’ve seen among freelancers I know.

Then break your income goal down into monthly and weekly goals. Knowing that you need to earn, say, $962 a week, will help you make the daily decisions that get you to your annual goal.

Keep track of what you’re earning each week and invoice for each job immediately after it is done, to speed up your cash flow.

After using Excel spreadsheets in the beginning, I switched to a simple accounting system, Freshbooks, to keep track of the projects I’m doing. It’s free if you have a small number of clients, and is a lot easier than winging it. This is just one option. Other freelancers have told me they like Quickbooks or Wave Accounting.

Once a month, I use the “reports” function on Freshbooks to look at my monthly profit and loss statement. It tells me how much I made per month and how that compares to other months. Keeping an eye on this helps me stay in the same ballpark every month.

Tracking your projects with a system like this will keep you honest about how much work you’re getting done and what you’re really earning. If you had a slow week or worked on lower-paying projects this week and only earned $500 of your target $962, maybe you need to step up your pitching next week. To “finance” lower-paying work that really stirs your passions, you may need to take on less-exciting but higher paying gigs at certain times of the month.

If you’re a creative type, thinking this way may be alien to you. But it is actually very freeing to be organized about this stuff, boring as it may be. Coming up with a simple system to tackle the dry parts of freelancing can allow you to lead a more interesting life.

Last week, we had our first warm sunny day in months, and I was free to take my four-year-old son to the park to enjoy it. On days like that, I am grateful I am not “on the clock” somewhere, forced to sit in a cubicle far from my family. The ticket to having that freedom, as I’ve learned in nearly 7 years of freelancing, is staying on top of the business side of what I do.


Growing Your Business, Making the Break, Uncategorized